The Best Ultralight Backpacks of 2020

By Michael Lanza

Do you need an ultralight backpack? Many backpackers might answer “no” when their answer should logically be “yes.” These packs aren’t just for thru-hikers. Typically weighing roughly between two and three pounds empty, ultralight packs have support for carrying 25 to 35 pounds—making them ideal for more than just ultralight backpacking. For many backpackers, that represents the range of pack weight they either carry on most trips—or could carry on most trips, with smart packing and reasonably light gear.

In other words, an ultralight pack just may be perfect for you. And this article covers the best ones out there today. My picks are based on extensive field testing of many packs of all types over more than 25 years of reviewing gear, formerly as the lead gear reviewer for Backpacker magazine, and many years for this blog.

As I wrote in my “5 Expert Tips For Buying the Right Backpacking Pack,” when backpacking ultralight or lightweight—which describes probably at least 80 percent of my backpacking trips—I want a backpack with low weight and minimal features like pockets and zippers, because I just don’t need more than that. Still, I like the convenience of quick access for some items, like a lid pocket or, more often, side and hipbelt pockets for snacks, map, sunglasses, and sunblock, plus a large front pocket where I can stuff items like a jacket.

The pack you choose will depend on personal preferences regarding design features, price, weight, and capacity.


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Ultralight Packs Defined

Some ultralight backpackers assert that only packs weighing under about two pounds empty are truly ultralight packs. (Some of the comments at the bottom of this story delve into that.) The semantic argument aside, packs that light are generally frameless. I have used frameless packs from various brands that employ the same basic design, including on a seven-day thru-hike of the John Muir Trail, when we had our base pack weight (everything but food and water) under 15 pounds.

Frameless packs are very minimalist, with a comfortable carrying capacity of about 20 to 25 pounds at best, and that assumes the user is very diligent about loading the pack to achieve optimal distribution of weight. A frameless pack with a lightly padded hipbelt that also lacks structure does not support weight; the pack essentially hangs off your back, requiring your back and shoulders to bear the weight.

I prefer ultralight packs with some kind of frame structure, like those in this review, because they distribute the pack’s weight in a way that your body can carry more comfortably for hours on the trail, day after day. A frame helps shift most pack weight onto your hips, which is far more comfortable than having weight hang off your shoulders. I think many people would notice the difference, especially with more than 20 pounds in the pack. In fact, even hiking daypacks designed for carrying more than 15 pounds have a frame.

Reviewed below are several backpacks that stand out in this category. Please share your comments or questions about them, or suggestions for your own favorite ultralight pack, in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments.

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The Osprey Exos 58 backpack in Glacier National Park.
Testing the Osprey Exos 58 backpack in Glacier National Park. Click on the photo to see my picks for the 10 best backpacking packs.

The Osprey Exos 58 ($220, 2 lbs. 11 oz.) or Exos 48 ($200, 2 lbs. 5 oz.), and the newer women’s Eja 58 and Eja 48, have long ranked among the best ultralight backpacks. I’ve used and liked the Exos 58 a lot since it first came out in 2008, including on a four-day, 86-mile backpacking trip in Yosemite National Park and on a weeklong hut trek in Italy’s Dolomite Mountains, and I more recently took the updated 2018 version of the Exos 58 on a six-day, 94-mile hike through Glacier National Park.

The top-loading Exos and Eja carry 30 pounds or more comfortably thanks to an alloy perimeter frame and a pronounced bell shape that transfer much of the pack weight onto your hips, where you want it, and they have the capacity for weeklong trips and ultralight thru-hiking. Their trampoline-style back panel permits cooling air circulation. At just over 2.5 pounds, they have smart features like good compression, a removable lid, voluminous exterior pockets, and a handy trekking poles attachment on the left shoulder strap.

Read my review of the Osprey Exos 58 and Eja 58.

Also worthy of a close look are Osprey’s “super ultralight” packs, the men’s Levity 60 and the women’s Lumina 60 ($270, 1.9 lbs.), which Osprey says carry up to 25 pounds. There are smaller sizes, the Levity 45 and Lumina 45 ($250, 1.8 lbs.). Osprey says these packs are definitely for committed ultralighters, primarily thru-hikers who are carrying extremely minimalist kits—in other words, for lighter loads than the Exos/Eja.

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The Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Windrider backpack in the Wind River Range.
The Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Windrider backpack in the Wind River Range.

The Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Windrider ($365) weighs just two pounds, has removable aluminum stays and a harness system that I found comfortable carrying 30 to 35 pounds, and is made with waterproof (and practically bulletproof) Dyneema fabric. Its minimalist design features three roomy, exterior mesh pockets and zippered hipbelt pockets, and a roll-top closure with top and side compression for stabilizing under-filled loads. For its weight, it offers unique carrying comfort and capacity for long trips.

Read my complete review of the 3400 Windrider.

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The Gregory Optic 58 ultralight backpack in the Grand Canyon.
The Gregory Optic 58 ultralight backpack in the Grand Canyon.

The Gregory men’s Optic 58 and women’s Octal 55 ($210, 2 lbs. 7 oz.), and the smaller Optic 48 and Octal 45 ($190), are designed for backpackers who want to go ultralight without switching to a stripped-down style of backpack. I found it comfortable carrying 30 to 35 pounds backpacking the Grand Canyon’s rugged Thunder River-Deer Creek Loop off the North Rim.

These packs sport six external pockets, including two on the hipbelt and a large, stretch-mesh front pocket, and useful features like a quick attachment on the left shoulder strap for trekking poles or sunglasses. Gregory’s attention to comfort in its first ultralight backpack is reflected in the aluminum perimeter wire with an HDPE framesheet and leaf-spring lumbar pad, which distributes most of the pack’s load across the hips and delivers support for carrying 30 to 35 pounds; and the trampoline-style Aerospan suspension, a tensioned, highly ventilated back panel that allows allow air movement across your sweaty back.

Read my review of the Gregory Optic 58 and Octal 55.

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Sierra Designs Flex Capacitor 40-60 backpack.
Sierra Designs Flex Capacitor 40-60 backpack on the Tour du Mont Blanc.

The signature feature of the Sierra Designs Flex Capacitor 40-60 ($200) is a compression system that allows you to alter the pack’s capacity to fit whatever you’re carrying, making it more stable with a small load. At 2 lbs. 9 oz., it’s heavier than others but still a legitimate ultralight backpack, and I’ve found it comfortable hauling 30 to 35 pounds, thanks in part to a sturdier (though still streamlined) hipbelt than is found in some ultralight packs. It has quick, one-zipper access to the main compartment, and five external pockets (lid, side, and hipbelt).

Read my review of the Flex Capacitor 40-60.

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REI Flash 45
The REI Flash 45 in Utah’s Dark Canyon Wilderness.

The REI Flash 45 ($159) is not only a steal, but it sports nice design features for ultralight backpacking, including six external pockets; it also weighs close to three pounds, heavier than others listed here. A steel, internal perimeter frame with one horizontal stay, plus a contoured hipbelt and well-padded shoulder straps make it comfortable carrying 25 to 30 pounds, and REI’s UpLift compression system squeezes the load from the bottom to draw it closer to your hips. The larger version is the Flash 55.

Read my complete review of the Flash 45.

The ULA Circuit ($255) weighs in at 2 lbs. 9 oz., but it’s spacious at 68 liters, and its roll-top closure extends farther than many competitors, giving you more capacity when needed. With a carbon fiber and Delrin suspension, a dense foam frame and an aluminum stay, it will carry up to 35 pounds, and the hipbelt and shoulder straps come in multiple sizes for customizing the fit for men or women. ULA’s 400 Robic fabric is highly durable, and the pack has a huge external front pocket.

The Gossamer Gear Mariposa 60 ($225, 1 lb. 14.5 oz. for medium pack with medium belt) has more capacity than many two-pound packs, comes in a wide range of torso lengths and hipbelt sizes, and has side pockets made of more-durable fabric, rather than mesh. It has a removable internal frame and seven pockets, and comes in three torso and three hipbelt sizes. Watch for my upcoming review of the Mariposa 60.

The Granite Gear Blaze 60 in the Grand Canyon.
The Granite Gear Blaze 60 in the Grand Canyon.

Depending on how much weight you intend to carry, two other, more-versatile backpacks that weigh just ounces more than some of these, yet carry more weight comfortably and have more features, are the Granite Gear Blaze 60 (read my review) and The North Face Banchee 50 (read my review).

See all of my backpack reviews and my review of the 10 best packs for backpacking, including models that range from around three-and-a-half pounds to five pounds.

See also my “5 Tips For Buying the Right Backpack,” “Video: How to Load a Backpack,” all of my reviews of backpacking gear and ultralight backpacking gear, and my Gear Reviews page at The Big Outside for numerous stories with my picks for best gear and tips on buying gear.

Whether you’re a beginner or seasoned backpacker, you’ll learn new tricks for making all of your trips go better in my “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Wilderness Backpacking Trip” and “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking.” If you don’t have a paid subscription to The Big Outside, you can read part of both stories for free, or download the e-guide versions of “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Wilderness Backpacking Trip” and the lightweight backpacking guide without having a paid membership.

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25 thoughts on “The Best Ultralight Backpacks of 2020”

  1. I always appreciate an article about ultralight pack options, BUT all of your suggestions were mainstream vendors with weights 30+ oz. there are a tremendous number of options within the 15-20 oz range from great cottage vendors like SWD, MLD, LiteAF and others. Wondering why these options were ignored?

    Reply
    • Hi Alex,

      Thanks for the question. You’ll see it’s one I have discussed in response to other comments below. You’re correct that the packs I’ve spotlighted all weigh around two pounds or more because they are internal frame packs. The packs from brands you’ve noted that weigh 15-20 ounces are frameless packs. The presence or absence of a supportive internal frame has defined that weigh differential since frameless packs were first mass produced more than two decades ago.

      As I write under the Ultralight Packs Defined section of this story (above), frameless packs are very minimalist, with a comfortable carrying capacity of about 20 pounds and 25 pounds at best, and that assumes the user is very diligent about loading the pack to achieve optimal distribution of weight. A frameless pack with a lightly padded hipbelt essentially hangs off your back, requiring your back and shoulders to bear the weight.

      I prefer ultralight packs with some kind of frame structure, like those in this review, because they distribute the pack’s weight in a way that your body can carry more comfortably for hours on the trail, day after day.

      A frameless pack can work for an ultralighter whose base pack weight is under 10 to 12 pounds. For anyone carrying a total pack weight over 20 pounds, I recommend a pack with an internal frame.

      Hope that answers your question. Thanks for the comment.

      Reply
  2. It’s disappointing to see that list and ZPacks UL packs are excluded. I just finished an 88 mile, 8 night, 9 day trip with the ArcHaul 65. It was loaded to 34.4 lbs day one. I walked out with 12 lbs and no food a little over a week later. The pack performed exceptionally well. Better than any osprey or Gregory pack I’ve ever used. Stupid light (22oz) with more than enough room, yet easy enough to compress as the trip went on. I’ve spent decades on the trail and I’m more impressed with this pack than I have ever been with one. Highly suggest.

    Reply
    • Thanks, Aaron, I appreciate the suggestion. I’ve had ZPacks on my radar for a while and I’ll take a close look at the ArcHaul 65. If I test it in the backcountry, I will post a review of it. In general, look for more reviews of ultralight backpacks at my blog.

      Keep in touch.

      Reply
    • Hi Tucker, no, I have not used the LiteAF packs. I have noticed them and they do look interesting, and quite similar to the Hyperlite Mountain Gear packs in design and materials. I like the LiteAF a la carte system for ordering a pack, which does apparently require a wait time while they build your pack. I wonder about its comfort compared to the HMG 3400 Windrider, which I mention in this article and reviewed here, and it looks like you may get a better value from the 3400 Windrider, depending on which features you want added to the LiteAF 46L Curve Full Suspension Custom Pack. But again, I haven’t hiked in one yet.

      Good luck, thanks for the question. Please add any thoughts you have if you’ve used one of the LiteAF packs.

      Reply
      • Hey Michael!

        I have been testing the LiteAF 35L Curve Fast Track Pack throughout the winter here in Tahoe. The plan was to thru-hike the Trans-Catalina Trail for a true test at the end of March, but the world had other ideas. Nevertheless, it has exceeded my expectations as my trusted pack for guiding snowshoe hikes here all winter.

        As another of your commenters mentioned below, this specific design is rated for about 20 pounds, but I definitely doubled that on at least one day trip this winter. Carrying gear for clients ends up boosting your pack weight a bit and, while I wouldn’t want to carry 40-45 pounds in this pack on a multi-day hike, it performed very well for a four-hour day hike with the added weight.

        I was initially skeptical that it didn’t include a hip belt, but the way they’ve designed the shoulder straps really does wonders to keep the pack weight close to your body’s center of gravity. Overall, I’d say that experienced thru-hikers should definitely look into LiteAF packs. You’ll need to have your kit really dialed down, but the ability to customize your pack order (as you mention) is a great service for those that just can’t seem to find a pack on the market that is manufactured with all of the features and specs they’re looking for.

        Reply
        • Hey Tucker,

          Thanks for sharing those detailed observations from your experience with the LiteAF 35L Curve Fast Track Pack. The company’s sales model has some appeal, as you say. I’ll keep an eye on this brand and may find an opportunity to test and review one of their packs.

          Keep in touch, I appreciate the feedback.

          Reply
    • Hi Bill, Zpacks is worth a close look. But reference my exchange of comments with Glen, below, for my observations about frameless packs, which are the only packs that weigh under two pounds.

      Reply
  3. Thanks for the article. Consider checking out the cottage company Lite AF. I love my Curve 35. No frame so you wouldn’t want to go over 20 lbs, but the product is awesome.

    Matt

    Reply
  4. I enjoyed your well-researched article. What are your thoughts on the Gossamer Gear G4-20, 25 oz. (1 lb. 9 oz.), 42L roll-top backpack with carrying capacity of 25-30 lbs.? What are your feelings on how it compares to Osprey Exos 38, for instance? I currently own an Osprey 4 lb. 5 oz., 60 L Volt and am looking to shed weight for 4-5 day section hikes on the AT.

    Reply
    • Thanks for that question, Glen. While I have not used the Gossamer Gear G4-20, I have used frameless packs from other brands that employ the same basic design, like some of the early GoLite ultralight packs; I used one of them on a seven-day thru-hike of the John Muir Trail, and we had our base pack weight (everything but food and water) at under 15 pounds.

      Frameless packs are very minimalist, and I think 25 to 30 pounds is an optimistic expectation for its comfortable carrying capacity. I’d put it at 20 pounds, maybe 25 pounds at best, and that assumes the user is very diligent about loading the pack to achieve optimal distribution of weight and keeping hard or sharp objects from poking into the thin, flexible back pad. A frameless pack with a lightly padded hipbelt (that also has no structure) does not support weight, it essentially hangs on your back, requiring your back and shoulders to bear the weight, however it may be distributed.

      I prefer ultralight packs with some kind of frame structure, like those in this review, including the Exos series, that will distribute the pack’s weight in a way that your body can carry more comfortably for hours on the trail, day after day. A frame helps shift the large part of a pack’s weight onto your hips, which is far more comfortable than having weight hang against your shoulders. I think many people would notice the difference, especially with more than 20 pounds in the pack.

      I also noticed that the G4-20 sizes each span four inches of torso length; that’s about as broad a fit range as you’ll see in a non-adjustable pack. If your torso falls in the middle of the range, it may fit you very well, but torsos at the top or bottom of the range may find the fit less than optimal.

      Otherwise, I do like the general design of the G4-20, which is similar to others in this review, like the Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Windrider, which does carry 30 pounds or more comfortably.

      Short answer: If your pack weight maxes out at 20 pounds, or maybe 25 pounds, and/or you’re very fit and not bothered by the inherent comfort and support limitations of a frameless pack, the G4-20 may work great for you. Personally, I’ll accept the nominal additional weight of a frame in a backpack for the better comfort and greater weight-carrying capacity, which has the additional benefit that I can also use it on trips where I’m necessarily carrying 25 to 30 or 35 pounds.

      Hope that’s helpful. Good luck.

      Reply
      • Many thanks for your experience, Michael. I can get my base weight under 20 pounds, but with food um…, I agree, it’s not worth being uncomfortable. I tried a weighted Exos and it was like carrying air. I didn’t care so much about the loss of hip pockets as I carry snacks, phone, etc. in my cargo pants pockets. Though I wish other brands offered a quick-stow system for trekking poles that didn’t require having to doff my pack. The Exos cover flap is an improvement, but still not as good as a roll top closure for reducing/compressing the pack size on the trail.

        Oh well, we’ll just have to wait until someone “perfects” a pack. Ha. Thanks again for the great article.

        Reply
        • You’re welcome, Glen, and I appreciate the thoughtful question. With somewhere between 20 and 30 pounds in your pack, or maybe even more at times, I believe you will enjoy your trips much more if you’re carrying a pack with a frame. I’ve used the Exos quite a bit, both the newest version and the previous generation, and it’s a fine backpack. There are others in this review also worth considering, and fit has a big impact on comfort. Good luck and keep in touch.

          Reply
  5. Michael,

    Last November (2018) I ‘downsized’ from my beloved custom made McHale to a HMG Southwest 4400. Close to the same volume 70 litres but more than five pounds lighter. The suspensions are similar with a pretty basic but very effective hip belt. The 4400 does not have load lifters which I have not missed. Adapting to the roll top vs a lid or brain has proven easy with the big pockets. I did add two water bottle holsters as I prefer them over bladders.

    I have now done close to 50 day hikes up to about to 7 hours with 35-40 lbs. the HMG is performing amazingly. I love the simplicity and adjustability of the simple bag and roll top. I also use the HMG Pods which are more space efficient than stuff sacks. And after 7 hours in a constant West Coast ‘rain hike’ there was not a drop of moisture inside. Plus no rain cover to deal with.

    I prefer packs that snug to my body. Yes I perspire under the pack but the system works. I have tried the air suspension systems from Osprey, Deuter and Gregory, the new Arc’teryx Bora. I can’t find a comfortable fit and constantly like I am being pulled backwards.

    HMG, in my view, have a winning formula.

    Reply
  6. I’ve got the Talon 44 & Stratos 34. Love both, but am looking for something alittle bigger for some really long hikes. I still want light as I can get tho. Just tried on both the Exos 58 and Atmos AG 65 at the local EMS. The Atmos felt better with more weight compared to the Exos, which makes sense. But I really dug the way both felt. My only gripe with the Atmos is that I hit my head on the metal frame whenever I tilted my head back even alittle bit. I’m a big guy. 6’4″ & 230lbs so I tried on the large. The Exos frame didn’t hit my head at all when looking up. But I loved the way the Atmos hugged my body and carried heavier loads like nothing. So I’m torn. Get the Exos & be able to look up. Lol. Or get the Atmos and be able to carry more better. Hmm.

    Reply
    • Hi Regan, I understand your dilemma, the Atmos AG 65 and Exos 58 are certainly both great packs, but for different purposes. Besides deciding based on how each fits your torso, I think your question comes down to how much weight you intend to usually carry: 30 pounds or less? Go with the Exos. 40 to 50 pounds? You want the Atmos. I suggest you know the weight of your usual gear, food, etc., before making that decision.

      Reply

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